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Harvard discusses moving researchers

A shift to Allston from Longwood

Several influential department heads at Harvard Medical School are discussing the possibility of moving hundreds of researchers and staff from the Longwood medical area to Harvard's emerging campus in Allston.

The proposal under discussion, though still in very preliminary stages, could shift nearly half of the people now occupying the iconic quadrangle at the heart of the medical school -- up to 70 professors and 500 to 700 staff members -- to a new 1-million-square-feet building in Allston.

The talks suggest that Allston, viewed in the past by some of Harvard's faculty as a backwater, is emerging as a more desirable address. And some medical school faculty are intrigued by the possibility of being closer to a cutting-edge science complex planned for Allston as well as opportunities for collaboration with engineers, physicists, chemists, and mathematicians who will be working there.

But taking hundreds of Harvard personnel out of the Longwood medical area is likely to be controversial. Development of the area, which includes leading hospitals, labs, and medical facilities, began a century ago when the medical school opened on Longwood Avenue.

The move under discussion would shift the medical school's basic science researchers -- those examining the building blocks of life such as cells and genes -- to Allston, but not those studying drugs or medical devices, which frequently require clinical trials on humans, according to a Harvard official with knowledge of Allston planning.

Classroom instruction and the school's headquarters would probably remain in the Longwood medical area. The medical school has thousands of other affiliated faculty, but they are based at Harvard teaching hospitals.

Some professors at the medical school believe the 100-year-old quad has become outmoded for cutting-edge laboratories and would like to start afresh in Allston.

Harvard professors and administrators would not discuss details, saying the idea is at a very early, speculative stage. It was not included in the master plan that Harvard submitted to the City of Boston earlier this month. The idea is unlikely to move forward before the arrival of a new dean for the medical school, expected later this year. Any proposal would require several approvals, including from Harvard's governing board, known as the Corporation, and from the city.

But Dr. Steven E. Hyman , the provost, said he was pleased to see faculty members discussing ways they could benefit from Harvard's land in Allston.

"What the medical school is doing is engaging in healthy discussion," he said, noting that the full medical faculty had not yet discussed the idea. "They may decide they want to move something or expand into Allston, and they may decide it's better to keep everyone closer to the hospitals."

Harvard has a historic opportunity to remake itself as it stretches out into more than 200 acres in Allston that it acquired piecemeal over many years. Science will be a major focus for the new campus, beginning with an expansive science complex on Western Avenue, which Harvard plans to begin building this year. The schools of education and public health are also expected to move to Allston.

Some of Harvard's wealthier, more prominent schools have resisted the idea of moving to Allston. The law school's faculty voted against the idea several years ago. But the vast space affords opportunities for creativity, Hyman said. And some of the most exciting work being done in science is on the borders between fields such as biology and engineering.

Harvard is considering its first universitywide department, which would be focused on stem cell biology and bring together scientists from several disciplines.

"The good news for Harvard is that diverse faculties are now taking into consideration the potential opportunities in Allston and thinking in terms of potential new facilities, but more importantly, potential new collaborations," Hyman said.

If the medical school's basic biology researchers vacated the Longwood area, the school might use the space to expand research in a burgeoning area of science called translational research, which tries to adapt basic science discoveries for medical treatments. Harvard could also lease the space to the hospitals or use it for additional classrooms and offices, according to the Harvard official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The medical school's original Longwood campus, opened in 1906, has been renovated numerous times, but is much more difficult to adapt to the high-tech needs of some modern labs, the official said. The imposing white marble complex, built with money from the Rockefellers and J.P. Morgan, was at the time the most expensive and largest medical facility in the country.

Harvard has expanded its presence in the area as recently as three years ago, when it opened a $260 million tower across Longwood Avenue from the original campus.

Harvard officials expect that some professors and hospital administrators would strongly oppose the move, because it could be seen as a blow to the cohesive medical community in Longwood, and because it would be unwieldy for the medical school to straddle two parts of the city.

Dr. Gary Gottlieb , president of Brigham and Women's Hospital, said it was too early to comment on a specific plan but said the Harvard teaching hospital was open to any changes that are in the best interests of scientific advancement.

"To try to bring people with collaborative interests together to build more for Boston and for the world is very important," he said. "We want to make sure our researchers thrive, whether it is right across Shattuck Street or 2 miles away in Allston."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@